Showing posts with label monday night football. Show all posts
Showing posts with label monday night football. Show all posts

Monday Night Vengance: the Bears-Lions Rivalry Renewed

>> 10.22.2012

dominic_raiola_detroit_lions_chicago_bears

"They don't like us. We don't like them. That's how it is.”

--Dominic Raiola, Detroit Lions center, on the Chicago Bears

They don’t like us. We don’t like them. The Chicago Screwjob. Last season’s Monday Night triumph. The return blowout at Solider Field. Glorious wins, stinging defeats, bitter complaints, searing pain, delicious triumph.

Actual rivalry.

A “rivalry” can be any recurring matchup. Any two teams with history, any two teams in the same division, any two teams that have played each other before can be called “rivals.” But this rivalry is something different; this rivalry means more. This isn’t about Alex Karras or Dick Butkus or Gayle Sayers or Lem Barney or George Halas or Dutch Clark. This is, but isn’t just about soliders bearing the livery of Honolulu Blue and Silver and a Leaping Lion meeting soliders clad in Light Black and Grody Orange bearing the standard of that tweezers-C.

This is about two groups of men who hate each other.

This is something rare in professional sports. With its mercenary nature, massive salaries, players rarely have time to inspire true loyalty, or true contempt. With the genteel manner in which we demand the modern player behave, we rarely see two pro sports teams who truly want to kick each other’s ass.

Tonight, on Monday Night Football, the nation will see exactly that.

Of course, this means  something extra to the fans, too: we won a game ball for our support on the last Monday Night Football matchup between these two teams, and restored pride to our beleaguered franchise’s national reputation. Then, the Bears returned the favor, putting a serious wobble in the Lions’ playoff trajectory and dulling the roar of the “Lions Nation Army” for most of the rest of the season.

Here in Week 7, the season’s already at stake for the Lions: win, and they pull up to .500: within a half-game of the Packers, a game of the Bears, and a game-and-a-half of the Vikings. Lose and they’re down three full games to the 5-2 Bears, with the tiebreaker unlikely.

The situation's similar for the Bears: win and they're sitting atop the division, lose and they're a mortal 4-3 with a murderous second-half schedule lurking around the corner.

This will come down, as always with these two teams, to two factors: the quarterbacks, and the defensive lines. Whichever quarterback makes more plays and avoids the other’s defensive line wins.

The hour is late; the Lions are at the gate. The Bears stand ready to defend their fortress. The rivalry is about to be renewed.

We cannot tilt the battlefield in favor of our team. We cannot intimidate their players or bully the refs or short-circuit their communications or make them commit penalties in their terrified confusion; all we can do is watch.

Watch, and hope.

Watch, hope, and hate.

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Completely Useless Waste of Time: 2012 Edition

>> 4.18.2012

256px-Mony-Python-Complete-Waste-of-time

Ahh, the magic of the Completely Useless Waste of Time. The CUWoT, for the uninitiated, is my pet name for the masturbatory practice of predicting YOUR FAVORITE TEAM’S RECORD right after the NFL releases its schedule for the year. Last night, at 7:00 EDT, the NFL released its 2012 schedule.

The Lions have 5 games on national television: Thanksgiving against the Texans, two Sunday Night Football games at San Francisco and at Green Bay, a Saturday night game hosting the Falcons, and a Monday Night Football game at Chicago. This is news.

What is not news is everyone going through the schedule, presuming the Lions to be slightly better than last year, then going through the schedule and picking the Lions to lose to every team perceived to be as good or better than whatever "slightly better than last year" means for the Lions. That, my friends, is a completely useless waste of time.

For starters, unlike previous years, the draft hasn’t even happened yet. All 32 teams are going to fill major roster needs—or not—in a week. To pretend we know the relative strengths of these teams in the spring is goofy enough; to pretend we know the relative strengths of these teams when we don’t even know their starting lineups is criminally insane.

But, "slightly better than last year" means 11-5, and so everybody on the planet is picking 11-5. Last season, everyone was picking between seven and nine wins for the Lions, but I stated that the Lions would make the playoffs as fact on May 27th. Because, duh:

Nick Fairley doesn’t need to be a stud. The Lions don’t need to sign Nnamdi Asomugha, or add more backup tackles. The Bears don’t need to implode (though they will), and the Vikings won’t need to keep backsliding (though they will). The Lions don’t need to “learn how to finish,” they just need Matthew Stafford healthy for 16 games. If they get that, the Lions will win ten of those games, at least—and they’ll make the playoffs.

. . . not to put too fine a point on it, but that was as arrogantly definitive of a paragraph as I’ve written—and that’s saying something—and I batted 1.000.

Don’t forget, the NFL is all about variance. As I wrote about in “Detroit Lions, NFL, and Luck,” the correlation between actual team goodness and wins is about 75%. Per point differential and strength of schedule, the Lions were almost spookily in sync with how good they “really” were in 2011. The 2011 Lions expected W-L, based on point differential, was 9.9-6.1. That the record shook out exactly as I predicted was more or less sheer luck. If the Lions are slightly better in 2012 than they were in 2011, variance alone dictates they could finish anywhere from 8-8 to 15-1.

Don't believe me?

In 2010, the Green Bay Packers scored 24.2 points per game, 10th-best in the NFL. They allowed 15.0 points per game, 2nd-best in the NFL. They outscored opponents by 9.2 points per game, 2nd-best in the NFL. With their point differential, they should have won 12.1 games and lost 3.9. They actually went 10-6, snuck into the playoffs as a six seed, and won the Super Bowl.

In 2011, the Packers scored 35.0 points per game, best in the NFL, but allowed 22.4; 19th. Their differential was again second-best at 12.6 points per game, and their expected W-L was 11.9-4.1. They went 15-1, secured a bye, and promptly lost to the Giants (9-7, expected 7.9-8.1).

This method of calculating expected wins, often called Pythagorean wins, indicates something I'd suspected from the eyeball test: the Packers were slightly “worse” in 2012 than 2011, yet made a dramatic five-game jump in the win column.

In that very Pro Football Reference blog post, they note Pythagorean wins correlate much more strongly to next season’s wins than the season they describe—and since 1978, teams which finish 10-6 with between 9.5 and 10.5 Pythagorean wins (like the 2011 Lions), average 9.3 wins in the following season (like this upcoming season).

Food for thought.

What is my point? I have two left to make: penultimately, going through the schedule and picking wins and losses based on “last year’s record + talent additions – talent subtractions” is a completely useless waste of time, but that’s okay when there’s nothing else going on. Doing it immediately before the draft is madness. Lunacy. I refuse to participate.

I called the Lions going 10-6 last season because I thought they were an above-average team sure to make the playoffs, but no more . . . the scoreboard precisely reflected that level of performance. I wouldn’t have predicted a 5-0 start, and I wouldn’t have predicted a miserable October, but in the end the Lions were who I thought they were.

This year, the Lions will be better. If Stafford and Johnson are healthy for 16 games again, the Lions’ on-field performance will be better in 2012 than 2011, even if the draft yields no immediate starters. I base this entirely on the idea that the development of the younger players will have a greater positive impact than the depreciation of the older players’ negative impact.

How many regular season wins will that “slightly better than last year” performance? Well, between you, me, and Pythagoras it doesn’t really matter anymore. The Lions are a playoff team now. The question is, how many playoff games will they win?

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The Lions in Winter Blue Flame Awards, 2011 season

>> 1.13.2012

As we head into the first weekend of the Lions’ offseason, it’s time for the second annual Blue Flame Awards. The inaugural Blue Flame Awards were a success, but I think they can be a lot bigger. I’m going to announce these one at a time, an hour or two apart, updating the post and Tweeting as I go. If you’re not @lionsinwinter on Twitter, now would be a great time to start.

The envelope, please . . .

detroit_lions_blue_flame_heart_of_a_lion_raiola Chris Spielman Heart of a Lion Award: Dominic Raiola, C

Given to the Lion who most profoundly exudes fire, toughness, and determination to win, Raiola could easily win this every single year. The moment that clinched it was Raiola’s statement in the wake of the Thanksgiving disaster: “Grow the f*** up.” And you know what? They did.

detroit_lions_blue_flame_realized_potential_young Bryant Westbrook Realized Potential Award: Titus Young, WR

When the Lions drafted Titus Young with the 12th pick in the second round, fans everywhere were in shock. Who? A wide receiver? From Boise State? It seemed senseless. With several pressing defensive needs, and the first round pick already spent on a "luxury," a receiver to groom behind Nate Burleson was a total head-scratcher. When he missed most of training camp and preseason with a nagging injury, fans assumed his chance to be productive this season was lost.

But the Lions knew exactly how they wanted to use Young, and Young threw himself into being a Lion. He immediately earned Matthew Stafford's trust, and hauled in 48 catches for 607 yards and 6 touchdowns. Best of all, it's clear he's just getting started.

detroit_lions_blue_flame_tom_moore_jefferson

Tom Moore Coach of the Year Award: Shawn Jefferson, WR Coach

It's a little too easy to give this award to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan for the second year in a row—though he deserves it just as much, if not more, than last season. But the job Jefferson did with the wideouts this season was phenomenal. Besides helping Calvin Johnson reach record-breaking new heights, he helped Titus Young achieve his Blue Flame-winning potential and Nate Burleson drop that #ToeDragSwag.

For a wonderful in-depth look at the job Jefferson is doing—and why the Lions will be lucky to keep him around—see Anwar Richardson’s feature on Jefferson on MLive.

detroit_lions_blue_flame_game_of_year_mnf

Game of the Year: Week 5, Lions vs. Bears (Monday Night Football)

The Christmas Eve demolition of the Chargers that clinched the playoffs was special, but Monday Night Football was the Game of the Year and it isn’t even close. Besides being an anticipated-for-months revenge match for 2010’s season opener, besides it being a showcase game for the Lions, Lions fans, and the city of Detroit as a whole, and besides every second of the pre-game, in-game, and post-game festivities simultaneously oozing Motown and awesome, this is the game where the blue fire of Lions fandom roared so loud the Bears couldn’t play football in its presence. It was the greatest sporting atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of.

Nine false starts later, the Lions won the biggest Lions regular season game in decades—and Lions fans—you, me—were awarded a game ball by Coach Schwartz.

detroit_lions_blue_flame_mel_gray_jason_hansonMel Gray Three Phases of the Game Award: Jason Hanson, PK

At age 41, Jason Hanson entered training camp with question marks surrounding his injury—and, for the first time in nearly two decades, his job. In a legitimate kicking competition for perhaps the first time in his career, he shut out those suggesting it might be time to hang ‘em up and made 24 of 29 field goals (including blocks) and all 54 extra point tries. He proved he still has the leg, too, drilling 5 of 7 attempts from 50+ yards.

Honorable Mention: John Wendling

detroit_lions_blue_flame_mike_cofer_stephen_tulloch

Mike Cofer Tecmo Super Bowl Beast Mode Award: Stephen Tulloch, MLB

After signing a one-year deal in the offseason, Stephen Tulloch stepped into the heart of the Lions defense and dominated. Besides leading the team in tackles, he led all Lions linebackers with sacks (3) and interceptions (2). He was Pro Football Focus’s seventh-highest-graded inside linebacker, at a whopping +20.8. He earned their second-best coverage grade, too: +11.2. His run-stuffing grade was the ninth-best in the NFL at +12.6.

Let’s please hope he stays.

2011 The Lions in Winter Blue Flame Awards | Barry Sanders You Can Only Hope to Contain Him: Matthew Stafford

Barry Sanders You Can Only Hope to Contain Him Award: Matthew Stafford, Quarterback

Matthew Stafford had the greatest statistical season of any Lions quarterback ever. 63.5% competions, 5,308 yards, 41 touchdowns—and only 16 INTs, almost all of which were thrown while Stafford was throwing with a glove over a broken finger. Megatron gets honorable mention here, but Stafford was asked to carry this team to the playoffs at age 23 and he did. Absolutely incredible, history-making performance.

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From the Windy City to the Mountaintop

>> 11.11.2011

Last night’s moon was full. High, wispy gray clouds glossed over it in a way that often happens in video games but rarely in reality. The air was crisp and clean; I could see my breath. This morning a perfect, razor-thin dusting of snow lays on grass, cars, decks and toys not put away the night before.

Winter is here.

Fittingly, today is November 11th; in the old Julian calendar this day was halfway between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice. In old European tradition, today is celebrated as St. Martin’s Day or Martinmas—the end of harvest and planting, and the beginning of the lean Winter months. As Fat Tuesday is a feast before a spiritual fast, St. Martin’s Day was a time to feast before there was nothing to eat but canned, pickled, and salted winter foods.

This morning I’m reminded of the harsh, cold winter months to come. A reminder that this glorious young 2011 football season, so full of promise and hope, is halfway over. A reminder that the Lions, who we’ve had the pleasure of seeing romp their way to a 6-2 start, have a grim task ahead of them.

Up until this point there’s been no downside; coming off eight wins in 48 tries the Lions could win as many games as they lost satisfy the expectations of many. Now the stakes are higher. The rewards are much greater but the risk is, too. Now the coaches, players, executives and fans are fully invested in this season’s run to the playoffs. If they fall, it will hurt.

In the NFL, you can take nothing for granted. Every year is a blank slate, and while that means a team like the Lions can rise up from nothing and conquer, it also means a rock-solid franchise like the Colts can crumble to dust without warning. As young and as talented as this team is, and as competent and intelligent its leaders, this iteration of the Lions may not ever start 6-2 again. They have begun something great, but they have only begun.

The last time the Lions climbed to this altitude, it was 2007. They started 6-2 and then, halfway to the mountaintop they slipped off the cliff face and fell down, down, down into the abyss of the deepest black crevasse. That they’ve climbed back up to 6-2 again is nothing short of incredible . . . but it’s not enough. This team is good enough to ascend much higher, and if they don’t it will be not only a terrible disappointment, but a wonderful opportunity permanently lost.

Back in the relative warmth of October, the Lions hosted the Bears on Monday Night Football. It was the greatest home-field advantage the Lions have had in my lifetime: a sold-out-beyond-capacity crowd gathered from near and far, hometown music and and video montages, and all the pomp and circumstance of the national prime-time stage. The blue fire of Lions fandom never burned brighter than on that night.

As you know, the crowd fueled and fed the Lions, forcing Chicago into nine false starts and helping push the Lions to a 24-13 victory. Jim Schwartz awarded Lions fans a game ball: permanent, tangible proof that we, the Lions fans, truly helped our team to victory. Being there, lending my support, will forever be one of my most treasured memories and proudest moments.

fan-game-ball

I suppose we should feel proud, then, that Jay Cutler took pains to note the Lions won’t have that support on Sunday:

"We're going to be outside, not in the dome," Cutler said. "We're going to be on grass. It will be a little bit of a different environment for them as well."

"They don't have that [Ford Field] advantage on their side this time. It's going to be on our side," Cutler said.

Cutler thinks that playing outside will work to their advantage; that the Lions have no teeth outside the supportive comfort of their Ford Field den. He thinks that the elements, cold and cruel, will turn the tables. That Old Man Winter will be at the Bears back when the Lions enter the Windy City, and the cruel, bitter home field advantage he supplies will be as powerful as the mighty heat and warmth of the blue bonfire at full roar.

Well, you know, except for this:

“Sleet and mess forced #Bears to move practice indoors to Walter Payton Center”

via @BradBiggs

Though Matt Forte is being bandied about as an MVP candidate, the truth is that the Bears will go as Jay Cutler and the passing game goes. On that warm October night, Forte rushed 22 times for 116 yards, plus caught four passes for 35 yards, and the Bears could only muster 13 lousy points. Cutler played at an almost superhuman level to avoid a relentless Lions pass rush and couldn’t quite net 250 passing yards, out of 38 attempts.

The Lions and Bears are two talented teams with streaky offenses and stingy defenses. The Lions got plenty of help on Monday Night, but they’re also undefeated on the road. After a decade-long bout of road futility unmatched in 80 years of NFL play, the Lions haven’t lost a road game in three hundred and fifty-five days. If they can get the job done Sunday, that streak will extend to at least December; they’ll have completed a full calendar year without a road loss.

As this December comes, as Winter falls on the land again, the Lions have climbed the easy half of the mountain. Now their test—and ours—begins in earnest. Now is when the Lions need the heat and warmth of the bonfire the most. Let’s keep their blood pumping, their faces flushed, their fingers and toes twitching at the speed of combat. Let’s support our team with everything they’ve got, as they set out from base camp for the glorious mountaintop.

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Three Cups Deep: Lions vs. Bears

>> 10.11.2011

coffeeAhhhhhhhhhhhh.

What a wonderful, beautiful day. I have no words for how incredible, indelible, and overwhelming last night was.

We did it. We, the Lions fans, came out in force. We filled every seat in the house and then some, and we were deafeningly loud from opening kick to closing gun. We forced the Bears into nine false starts. We provided energy that the Lions fed off of. We changed the balance of the play on the field.

But the players on the field won this game.

Credit first must go to the defensive line, who played an incredible four quarters of football. They kept the pressure on constant boil with very little help from blitzes. Cliff Avril had a monster three-sack game (two were called back on penalties), but nearly everyone on the Lions defensive line "ate" well last night.

Credit must next go to Jahvid Best, who finally connected on a couple of the home run balls he was drafted to hit. He also made several nifty plays at the first and second levels that made something out of nothing, and something into something more. It's that ability that makes him so valuable--and together with his speed, so dangerous.

Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson both did their thing, the offensive line performed admirably, and Andre Levy and the linebackers kept Forte contained.

That having been said, the Lions still weren't hitting on all cylinders. Stafford missed some connections at some critical early junctures. The Lions clearly shut down the engine with a few minutes out and coasted it home.

Still, the Lions physically dominated the Bears from whistle to whistle; the only reason they didn't win 38-6 with a few turnovers and grip of sacks is Jay Cutler.

Say what you will about Cutler, but he was pitch-perfect last night. He escaped sack after sack by the skin of his teeth, and converted third down after third down with back-footed off-balance desperation heaves that always landed in the waiting arms of the only open man. With the Lions defensive line determined to put him on the ground after every throw, penalties be damned, Cutler absorbed all the abuse and kept the chains moving anyway.

The Bears owned the ball all game long (nearly 40 minutes of possession). Time after time we got the impression the Lions defense couldn't buy a stop. Yet, the Lions held Cutler, Forte, and the Bears to a measly 13 points. Mission accomplished.

In the end, that is the takeaway. Not the incredible bombast, not the significance of the night to the team or the city, nor any of the incredible numbers generated, nor any of the streaks broken or extended. The Lions faced their most stiffest challenge in a decade, and they rose up and passed it.

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The Watchtower: Lions vs. Bears

>> 10.10.2011

This is a bear climbing Devil's Tower. I guess I didn't know bear tails were that long.

Tonight, the Detroit Lions will host the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. It will be the most important regular season game the Lions have played since the loss that prompted the Fords to hire Matt Millen.

It’s almost impossible to enumerate all the different ways this game is crucial to the Lions’ success. In the most practical sense, a win makes the Lions 5-0, 2-0 at home, and 2-0 in division. A win would put the Bears three full games behind the Lions in the division race. It means the Lions would have to go a seemingly-impossible 4-7 afterwards to not win ten games. If the Lions win this game, the playoffs become a virtual certainty.

For many of the Lions, this will be the most important game of their career to date. They’ll never have played on Monday Night Football, in prime time, or in a game so meaningful to the division race. This will be their first professional “big game,” and we simply don’t know how they will respond.

If the Lions can bring their “A” game, their first 60-minute three-phase performance, they’ll get an enormous confidence boost that should last them the rest of the year. If they choke it away, it could burst the magic bubble the Lions have been riding to the top of the NFL standings; a free fall back to the bottom of the table could result.

This will also be a test of the strength of the blue fire. The stadium will be packed full, but how loud will it be? Can we push the Lions to play at their utmost? How long can we sustain the energy? Will we fall silent if things don’t go the Lions’ way early? Will we start heading for the exits if victory starts slipping away?

From a Detroit perspective, this game is both more and less important than the national observers would like it to be. Yes, Monday Night Football will be an outstanding showcase for Ford Field, the Detroit Lions, and their fans. Yes, it will be an incredibly important football game, both teams’ key to the playoffs. No, it will not be some kind of economic spirit totem that doubles the population overnight and supplies jobs and houses for everyone.

That having been said, a win would be really really cool.

As part of my constant tinkering with The Watchtower, I’ve decided that for division games, I’ll only use the data from the last three years. There are enough contests over the past few years that I’ll have good data—and with the same coaches on the same teams, it will be much more relevant to this week’s game than stuff that happened back in the 90s.

Mike Martz vs. Gunther Cunningham

Martz Ornk PgG YpA YpC Gun Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTSΔ YpA YpAΔ YpC YpCΔ
CHI 21st 20.9 6.47 3.90 DET 19th 23.1 6.75 4.51 19 -9% 10.63 64% 3.26 -16%
CHI 21st 20.9 6.47 3.90 DET 19th 23.1 6.75 4.51 24 15% 6.50 0% 4.07 4%
CHI 13th 23.5 6.46 4.70 DET 8th 19.0 5.82 4.76            

In last seasons’s second Bears Watchtower, I concluded:

It looks as though the only statistical trend for these two coaches, when facing off against one another, is that both units will play to their means: the 20.2-ppg Bears scored 19 against the 22.4-ppg Lions. Note, however, that that included about thirty minutes of shutout play in between Matt Forte receiving touchdowns. Given the data at hand, I’m inclined to project a repeat performance: 17-21 points, 7.50-8.00 YpA, and 4.0-4.25 YpC. I have medium confidence in this projection.

This is a statement game in many respects, and turnovers will likely make the difference. Last time, there were five fumbles (three lost), two picks, and 6 sacks for –42 yards. I see a similarly messy game this time around; how those turnovers and sacks are distributed will be the difference in the outcome

The statistical effect I thought I’d identified—that the Martz offense will pass more effectively than expected but score a typical amount of points due to sacks and turnovers—didn’t quite play out. I projected Cutler to pass for 7.50-8.00 YpA, and instead he passed for almost exactly his season average (6.50 YpA, 6.47 avg.). I projected the Bears to run for 4.0-4.25 YpC, and that’s exactly what they did (4.07 YpC).

Throughout last season, the Bears modified their approach from Martz’s classic Sid Gillman-style offense to a more traditional attack. Throughout the season, the Bears’ sacks allowed went down as their scoring effectiveness went up.

The Bears seem more capable of executing it the classic Martz offense this year, as they’re back to more 4-wide looks, long dropbacks, and allowed sacks—but they’re averaging 23.5 points per game, ranked 13th in the NFL. They’re passing for 6.46 YpA, just as they passed for 6.47 last year—but they’re running for 4.60 YpC, nearly a full yard better than last season. Matt Forte is having a fantastic season so far, and it shows in the stats.

After four games, Lions are the 8th-ranked scoring defense in the NFL. They’re allowing 19.0 points per game, a stingy 5.82 YpA, and a much more generous 4.76 YpC. To an extent, this plays into the Bears’ hands. Matt Forte will likely have another great game, taking pressure off Cutler and the offensive line. However, Jaws always tells us that points come out of the passing game . . .

During that last Watchtower, I said the following:

It looks as though the only statistical trend for these two coaches, when facing off against one another, is that both units will play to their means.

I’m going to stick with that trend. I project the Bears to score 20-23 points, passing for 5.75–6.25 YpA, and rushing for 4.85--5.15 YpC. I have high confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

If there’s anything we learned from the dirty cheating Vikings, it’s that crowd noise can give a huge advantage to a pass rush. The Bears have struggled to protect Cutler this year, allowing 15 sacks—more than any other team except the Rams.  As I wrote for Bleacher Report, the Lions have played much, much better at home than on the road in 2011, and if that trend continues the Bears won’t score anywhere near this many. Unless Forte rolls for 200 yards again, I don’t see a situation where the Bears score significantly more than 23 points on the Lions.

Scott Linehan vs. Lovie Smith

Lin Ornk PgG YpA YpC Lovie Drnk PpG DYpA DYpC PTS PTS? YpA YpA? YpC YpC?
DET 27th 16.4 5.42 3.95 CHI 21st 23.4 6.36 4.33 24 46% 7.45 37% 2.46 -38%
DET 27th 16.4 5.42 3.95 CHI 21st 23.4 6.36 4.33 23 40% 7.70 42% 4.00 1%
DET 15th 22.6 6.02 3.99 CHI 4th 17.9 6.17 3.73 14 -38% 5.03 -16% 0.95 -76%
DET 15th 22.6 6.02 3.99 CHI 4th 17.9 6.17 3.73 20 -12% 7.42 23% 4.96 24%
DET 2nd 33.8 7.44 2.95 CHI 20th 24.5 7.18 5.07            

Over the first two years, I developed what I thought was a pretty solid description of the interaction between Linehan’s offense and Smith’s defense:

Given greater or equal talent, Lovie Smith's relatively aggressive Tampa 2 will surrender a disproportionate amount of yards to Linehan's balanced offense, but also generate high numbers of sacks and turnovers, disproportionately disrupting scoring. Given mediocre or poor talent, Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 surrenders disproportionately high yardage and points, respective to the Linehan offense’s talent level.

It was confounded by the result of last season’s opening contest—which, of course, was a little unusual thanks to the Chicago Screwjob and the in-game loss of Matthew Stafford. What I didn’t—couldn’t have—predicted is that last year’s Bears defense would actually be the fourth-best in football last year. In light of the 17.9 points per game the Bears surrendered, the above description is still exactly what happens when Linehan’s Lion offenses meet Smith’s Bear defenses. It showed in the second contest, when the Drew Stanton-led Lions passed for 7.42 YpA and ran for 4.96 YpC, but only scored 20 points.

This season, the Lions have the second-most potent scoring offense in the NFL. They’re averaging 33.8 points per game. The Lions are averaging an impressive 7.44 yard gain with every pass attempt, though mustering just 2.98 yards per carry. On the defensive side, the Bears are the 20th-ranked defense in the NFL, allowing 24.5 points per game. They’re letting up 7.18 YpA and 5.07 YpC.

If we leave schematic interplay out of it, we’d expect the Lions to score quite a bit more than their season average on the year, throw a little better than usual, and have a nice game running the ball. However, if we apply what might be the most tried-and-true schematic effect I’ve ever identified, the scoring should be less high because of turnovers, but the passing and running games should have banner days.

Therefore, I project the Lions to score 33-36 points, while passing for 8.50—9.00 YpA, and rushing for 3.50—4.00 YpC. I have high confidence in this projection.

Mitigating/Aggravating Factors

The worst-case scenario here is Matthew Stafford’s first-quarter jitters leading to another turnover, and the Bears getting an early lead. I don’t think anything short of a 40-point blowout will actually take the crowd out of this game, but if the Bears can get an early turnover and capitalize on it, that might take the edge off enough for them to get rolling.

Aw, who am I kidding? The worst-case scenario is that Julius Peppers kills Stafford dead while we all look on in horror. Barring that, the Lions have proven themselves more than able to score points in bunches when called upon, and the Bears have surrendered them in bunches to anyone with the talent to do so. The Lions’ proverbial “best game” that they haven’t played yet could see an even higher point total, but I think this is a solid projection.

Conclusion

There’s a long paper trail backing the effects of the systemic interplay up. The two teams are playing on two different skill and execution levels right now. Given the stakes, given how badly I want to be right, I don’t want to go overboard on the hubris. However, there’s no other conclusion I can reasonably reach, given the data. The most likely outcome of the game is a 35-23 Lions win.

Today is the day where all of the effort of keeping the flame alive pays off. Today is our day, tonight is our night, and this year is our year. Lions fans, whether you’re there with me in person, out at a bar with friends, or sitting on the edge of your couch by yourself, I want to hear you roar from coin toss to gun. The whole world is about to find out just what kind of football team the Detroit Lions are, and what kind of fans Detroit Lions fans are.

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All My Rowdy Bears Are Scheduled for Monday Night

>> 4.20.2011

Chicago Bears PK, Robbie Gould celebrates a Monday Night Football game-winning kick.

will they be wearing these terrible jerseys

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard: the Detroit Lions’ 2011 schedule has been released, and not only will the Lions be playing a primetime game, not only will they be playing on Monday Night Football, but the Lions will be hosting the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football.

I was there the last time the Lions played on Monday Night Football. It was the first (and last) time I watched the Lions in the Silverdome, and it was a trainwreck of a game where Kurt Warner put on a quarterbacking clinic, while Ty Detmer and Charlie Batch combined to put on a quarterbacking circus. It devolved into chants of “Let’s Go, Red Wings” by the second half. The lone bright spot was getting to move down to 20th-row, 50-yard-line seats in the fourth quarter.

This time, though, the Lions are going to be out for revenge: against the league for blackballing them for so long, and against the Bears for last season’s stolen victory—and I’m going to do everything I can to be there.

But what about, you know, the rest of the games?

Don't be too concerned about the Lions being in a 7-way tie for the third-hardest strength of schedule in the NFL. It is, after all, the NFL—a game rigged to produce parity—and  teams’ winning percentages vary wildly from year to year. There’s a reason I call the exercise of going down the schedule and predicting wins and losses a “Completely Useless Waste of Time.”

If you follow that 2011 NFL Strength of Schedule link, you’ll see the swing in opponent winning percentage is about 5% off of 8-8 in either direction; pretty even considering all the moving parts that go into it. Instead, let’s look at a few key matchups:

Week 1: at Tampa Bay

Last season, I called the Bucs an "alternate reality" version of the Lions:

What if the Lions had brought in a Tampa 2 coach, like Leslie Frazier, and made evolutionary, rather than evolutionary, changes? The Buccaneers drafted Josh Freeman--a quarterback I'd championed as a possibility for the Lions two years ago--and, of course, the "other" monster DT available in this draft, Gerald McCoy. Much ink has been spilled along those lines, so I won't tip over another barrel--but in many ways, the Bucs represent an "alternate reality" version of the Lions.

Yes, the Bucs are an excellent benchmark for the Lions. Last year, of course, the Lions went down to Tampa Bay and won, breaking the eternal road losing streak. Presuming free agency and the draft (and, of course, the season) all happen, attempting to repeat the feat will be a great measuring stick for the Lions. Just like last season, though, this first week will be enormous. Three of the first four games are on the road, and if they don’t win this one they’ll struggle to keep their head above water.

Week 4: at Dallas

The phrase "at Dallas" generates a visceral reaction: “Oh NO! AT DALLAS!” But really, the Cowboys are an aging team coming off a 6-10 season. The Lions played AT DALLAS last season, too—and people forget the Lions were leading by 5 in the 3rd quarter, before the Cowboys were wrongfully awarded a kickoff return touchdown. This time, the Lions will get a chance to right a wrong—and again, if they don’t, they’ll be likely be 1-3 or even 0-4. A win would give them huge buzz and momentum going into Monday Night Football.

The Lions’ schedule softens in the middle: back-to-back home games against San Francisco and Atlanta, a road game against Denver, then the latest bye week the Lions have had in years. I’d expect the Lions to win two of those three.

Week 10: at Chicago

Just five weeks, and four games, after Monday Night Football, the Lions will go to Solider Field for the rematch. I have not been the biggest fan of the Bears’ approach to rebuilding, but Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli both did excellent work last year: Martz adjusted his playbook to match his personnel, and Rod Marinelli got the most out of the Bears’ talented-but-inconsistent defensive line. I’m not sure what to make of the Bears for 2011, but if the Lions win on MNF, I suspect the Bears get one back here. This one will have major playoff implications—for both teams.

Thanksgiving: vs. Green Bay

The Lions played the reigning Super Bowl champions very, very tough last season, and the NFL took notice. Scarily, both teams should be better this season, and this Turkey Day matchup should have the nation licking its chops beforehand, and loosening its belt afterwards. I’m expecting this to be one for the ages, and it could very even be for the division lead. By my count, the Lions “should” be one or two games behind the Pack coming into it.

Week 15: at Oakland

Huh? Oakland? Not at New Orleans? Not hosting Minnesota? No, this trip to the Black Hole has all the hallmarks of a trap game. Oakland, for all their many hilarious faults, were an 8-8 team last year—and some of their strengths dovetail obnoxiously with some of Detroit’s weaknesses. A winnable, late-season road game, when the Lions are fighting for a playoff spot in a cut-throat division, is exactly the kind of test the Lions must pass.

Week 17: at Green Bay

If the Lions want to make the playoffs, this is the ultimate crucible. The Lions have not won in Lambeau since before the the first President Bush authorized the first attack of the first Gulf War. The Packers will be defending their division crown very good season last year, and NFL title—and whoever loses the Thanksgiving Day contest will stop at nothing to win this one. The stakes in this game could be anywhere from “Meaningless” to “Winner Gets Division Title and First-Round Bye;” if it’s the latter than we’ll all be ten times more excited about this matchup than we are now about the Monday Night Football game.


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Three Cups Deep: Lions vs. Packers

>> 12.13.2010


Surreal.

That’s the only word to describe it.  In just over twenty four hours, the roof of the Metrodome collapsed, the Lions held the 25-point-per-game Packers offense to a field goal in a 7-3 victory, and Ford Field sold out of free tickets to the re-located Vikings/Giants game in just 90 minutes.

Turk McBride led the Lions with two sacks, as the Lions’ defensive line won the game almost by themselves.  The Lions’ 190 team rushing yards outstripped their team passing yards by the length of a football field.  Nearly as many Lions, 7, had at least one rushing attempt as had at least one reception, 8.  Greg Jennings not only didn’t put the team on his back, his bobble was the difference between a 75-yard touchdown and an Amari Speivey interception.  Drew Stanton, after an appalling game throwing the football, was flawless on the game-winning drive.  It must be said: the Lions won as they have lost—improbably, incredibly, nerve-shreddingly, and with more than a touch of surreality.

Jim Schwartz has given the players the day off today, which is a fitting reward.  Those hearty souls who waited outside in the freezing cold of the wee small hours were rewarded with tickets to tonight’s Vikings-Giants game—which the Lions’ staff has truly pulled out all the stops to accommodate.  Kevin Seifert detailed the Lions’ efforts to make their division rivals feel at home, which includes stadium sounds, scoring their mascot Ragnar a Harley, and scrubbing off the Lions wordmark and logo from the turf, and painting the Vikings’ logos on the field instead.

I’m incredibly proud of Lions fans, and the Lions organization, for putting together this incredible effort.  With just over a day’s notice, the Ford Field staff and the city of Detroit will give the nation a Vikings-Giants environment nearly indistinguishable from the one that had been scheduled for months.  This is a tremendous achievement, one that should be worn as a badge of honor by Mr. Ford, Tom Lewand, everyone in the Lions organization, the people of Detroit, and all Lions fans everywhere.

If you're lucky enough to go, a list of acceptable TLiW modes of rooting:

  • Wear Vikings gear and root Vikings. They're our NFC North neighbor, after all, and having them avenge the Giants loss would be nice. Besides, if we're replicating the real home field experience for them, why not be truly committed?
  • Wear Lions gear and root for a good game.  Hey, it’s a free NFL game in Detroit!  Let’s just make it classy and memorable for everyone.
  • Wear Lions gear and boo the hell out of the Vikings, because screw the Vikings.

Now, all that having been said . . . I can’t wait until they scrub that Vikings crap off our field.  It’s making me itch.



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